staying away from the grindstone

I’ve been asked to write a bunch of letters of recommendation this semester.  Engaging in this exercise brought back to mind an amusing debate that I had with Fabio in what seems like a thousand years ago. In this exchange Fabio defended—what I still think is the hopelessly naive—proposition that using terms such as “hardworking” in a recommendation letter was a good thing.  I had the unenviable task of reminding my recalcitrant friend of the fact that certain adjectives are not “positive” on their own, especially if they (automatically as cognitive scientists are increasingly finding) bring to mind their opposite (e.g. effortless talent) and especially if said opposite is precisely the ideal that is (implicitly, wordlessly) favored in the elite nooks and crannies of certain culture production fields (such as academia).

The funny thing is that it never occurred to me until now to consider the possibility that there might actually exist a social science literature on this.  It turns out that (an apparently tiny) literature does exist and that (shocking for some I suppose; absolutely unsurprisingly to me), the phenomenon even has a name (and if you read Merton, you know that if a phenomenon has been baptized then it must be important!).  It is called “grindstone words.”  In the—content and discourse-analytic—research that I had a chance to carelessly glance at (here and here), grindstone words (including “hardworking”) are negatively correlated (in a biochemistry and chemistry sample of letters) with the use of “standout” keywords (which as I noted originally, generally refer to intrinsic or effortless ability).  One of the papers (using a medical school sample) finds that grindstone words are used more often in letters describing women candidates in comparison to male candidates (which is what you would expect if the automatic association of grindstone words was negative and not positive).

So for the love of everything that is holy, and pace Fabio and Steve, don’t pepper (I don’t and I have been able to fill up up three or more single-spaced pages) your recommendation letter with allusions to hard work (although you should listen to Fabio on everything else that he’s ever, ever said; ever.  Oh, except for that Obama’s toast thing).

Written by Omar

December 4, 2009 at 11:47 pm

16 Responses

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  1. “…(although you should listen to Fabio on everything else that he’s ever, ever said; ever).”

    That’s a tall order. Fabio has said some nutty things, and much of it is on record here at orgtheory.



    December 4, 2009 at 11:56 pm

  2. It’s too bad that framing one’s strengths in this way has a negative impact because, net of every other qualification, being a hard worker is a positive attribute. I recently heard someone described in the opposite way “XXXX is brilliant but lazy.” The consensus in the room seemed to be that the person would be a much better scholar if they would take their effort to the next level.



    December 5, 2009 at 4:33 pm

  3. “Omar Lizardo’s outstanding contribution to sociology is made possible through his strong work ethic. His dedication to the profession has resulted in a record that is impressive in both quantity and quality.”

    In what language is this a put down?



    December 5, 2009 at 8:43 pm

  4. Fabio, I agree with the spirit of your question. But if you wrote this assessment in an external letter for P&T, Omar would be seen as a plugger, perhaps relying on service to his professional societies to be recognized, rather than on his intellect. You have damned him with faint praise — in this context.



    December 5, 2009 at 9:48 pm

  5. REW:Your statement shows the absurdity of the letter of recommendation. I wrote something that was in plain english a very strong endorsement. If that’s how my colleagues think, then I should probably stop writing letters.They obviously think I am a liar who speaks in euphemisms and half truths. What’s the point of evaluation if traits that are obviously good are impugned in the worst ways?



    December 6, 2009 at 1:13 am

  6. Fabio, I sympathize. Recommendation letters in hiring situations are often “dossier stuffers”. Do we have sufficient letters to check the box on the EEO form? Then we can rely on phone calls to “get the real story”. External letters for P&T need some delicious phrases that can be lifted for the endorsement statements by the department and college administrators as they send the package forward. Grindstone statements just don’t work. I wish that the perceptual filters used to decode recommendations weren’t occluded with these biases. But they are.



    December 6, 2009 at 1:38 am

  7. In what language is this a put down?

    Reminds me of that exchange in Yes Minister that builds up to Sir Humphrey saying, “Minister, with the greatest possible respect” and Jim Hacker yells “I don’t have to put up with that kind of abuse!”



    December 6, 2009 at 3:37 am

  8. I certainly agree that writing that somebody is brilliant but lazy in a letter would be an infinitely worse thing to say than saying that they had a strong work ethic.

    What mystifies me about this discussion is the presumption that we are talking about the merits of “hard work” in a neutral context. We are not. We are talking about the issue of whether being a “hard worker” is something good to say about somebody in the context of judging academic talent in contrast to what you could have said instead. So I’m not arguing that calling somebody a hardworker is some sort of epithet or that in reality hard work is not necessary to succeed in academia. Of course you need to work hard, of course it’s better to have the Protestant Ethic than to be a burning man aficionado. Everybody here works hard. Look at those CVs for Christ’s sake.

    I think a good thought experiment to consider is the following: there’s a fantastic theory position open (indulge me in my fantasy); and you have two students that specialize in social theory and you happen to be their main adviser and you have the unenviable task of writing two letters for different students applying for the same job (this of course happens very often). Further suppose that these people have comparable publishing records. In one letter you say “so and so came into grad school without a background in sociology, but due to his work and dedication he was able to come to achieve an excellent mastery of the classics” while in the other one you say “so and so came into grad school without a background in sociology, but he has an uncanny intuition for theory and was able to effortlessly master the classics in the blink of an eye.” There’s nobody in the world that would not consider the last letter as indicating more praise (once again presuming that the two candidates are close in productivity), or as indicating more future promise than the first one.

    To further contextualize this issue, let me say that I agree with Fabio that letters are worse than useless. But it is one thing to recognize this in theory. I disagree with anybody that were to try to sell me the fantasy that they don’t matter at all or that the language used in them is innocent. In fact, my suspicion is that the importance of letters increases (holding constant publication record) in the more elite, rarefied realms of academia, so in some (not so unrealistic contexts) they can be an important tie breaker or even play a role in some tenure decision.

    Another mental experiment. Think about some of the scholars that you admire most in the discipline. The people that have done work that you consider the best of the best. Let’s say you were trying to justify your admiration for them in conversation. What are the odds that you would say: “You know, I love Peter Bearman’s work because it just shows that he has a really strong work ethic”? Very low. What seems more natural (because, for instance, I’ve said this many times or have heard colleagues say this) is “You know, Peter Bearman is just brilliant.”



    December 6, 2009 at 4:38 am

  9. Great comment, Omar — you obviously put a lot of work into it.



    December 6, 2009 at 1:06 pm

  10. Thanks. I myself have always admired your effortless wit.



    December 6, 2009 at 1:18 pm

  11. A few quick comments. This will get a longer post from me:

    When I write letters and evaluate people, I do not assume a neutral context. I ask: how does this person contribute to sociology? For job candidates, this is by far the most important question for me. I want to know what the person has proved. “Plugging” and effortless mastery are both legitimate ways of producing high quality work. Letters that I care to read are those that explain how the work advances science. It’s nice to know how smart someone is, but IQ testing is not my job. Science is my job.

    For people applying to graduate school, we don’t have any measure of output, so we rely on proxies for raw talent. However, as Brayden comment suggests, there are many truly smart people in academia who amount to nothing because they simply don’t put in the effort or otherwise have horrible work skills. Success is definitely 10% inspiration/90% perspiration for most of us. Any truly accurate evaluation will indicate that an applicant has raw talent and the maturity to handle the long and difficult research process.

    Finally, if “hard working” is seen as a bad evaluation (!), then personally, I will drop the vocabulary but convey the sentiment using other words. If we all know hard work is important, then we should work at finding a way to communicate that in a positive way.



    December 6, 2009 at 8:29 pm

  12. I think one important issue (which maybe you’ll address in your future post) that I think lies behind a lot of this is the following: if we have CVs, GRE scores, etc., then why do we even need letters in the first place? One school of thought (the economists, etc.) is that letters serve no purpose, and they should be banned, they are insane, etc. I am sympathetic to the general sentiment behind this, but I suspect that these people are confusing the normative and the factual (which is also why they are the same ones who propose all kind of preposterous market schemes to take the place of peer review, or tenure, or what have you). But it is important to consider as an empirical possibility that letters may in fact be a (dis)functional remnant of a bygone era when academia was just a homosocial club.

    Another thing to consider is that letters do continue to have a purpose or function (even if it’s not the same one for which they were originally intended), and it is precisely because they can give you insight into a candidate that you would otherwise miss if you were to simply focus on so-called objective indicators of productivity (for faculty hiring) or intellectual ability. That is, as Fabio pointed out in the original post a million years ago “hiring is about finding people who are exceptional.”

    This is something that we can all agree on I think. But if this is true, then it is clear why grindstone words don’t work (no pun intended). While it is true that hard work separates those who might make it out of grad school to get a job and those who don’t, it is hardly the case that grindstone qualities separate the truly exceptional (from within that already highly selective subset) from those who are not, well, exceptional. So if a prospective employer is looking for exceptional qualities (as let’s say most departments in the true elite in Academia do), hard work can hardly qualify (not because it is negative or because it is not required, but simply because it is “common”). This is why I don’t think it’s bizarre if the systematic (mis)reading of grindstone terms as indicating “solid quality” but not “really exceptional talent” is the default one.

    So if this is the case, and if letters are about “hidden qualities” of the product that are not retrievable from easy inspection of the objective package (to propose a [functionalist!] Williamson-type transaction cost/asset specificity explanation for why we still use them), then they better tell you something that you don’t know (like whether this person is really the best student you’ve had since Peter Bearman).



    December 6, 2009 at 9:11 pm

  13. (from within that already highly selective subset)

    This is the key premise right? If you’re looking at a subset of people who’ve all met the (mostly productivity-based) criteria, then I’m not sure how you can resist Omar’s point here.



    December 7, 2009 at 12:47 am

  14. There’s also a handful (fingerful?) of studies about gender differences in letters of recommendation. Letters for women tend to be substantially shorter, spend less time talking about the candidate’s research, and more time talking about personality traits … including, curiously, being “hardworking.”

    I think “hardworking” is the academic equivalent of, “yes, but she’s got a nice personality…” It’s almost as damning-with-faint-praise as “s/he writes well,” but not quite.

    BTW, another study, from Sweden, suggests that women have to be a lot more (objectively) productive in order to get the same subjective productivity rating. As I vaguely recall, the net benefit for being male (in subjective productivity ranking for a medical research fellowship) was estimated to be about the same magnitude as having an article in Science. The usual disclaimers about devil being in the details of the study applies, plus the added disclaimer that it’s been a while since I read it.



    December 7, 2009 at 1:27 am

  15. Even the language used to describe hard work — “grindstone” — suggests an image of that work as dull and sort of mindless.

    But when I think about the most interesting work in my subfield, it’s done by people who are undeniably incredibly smart, but the thing that really sets them apart is their intellectual ambition. These are people who didn’t look for the easiest papers to write with available data, but who thought hard about what would most definitively answer some major questions in the field, and pursued answers even when doing so involved directing an almost shocking amount of work at the problems.

    Being really smart was probably a precondition for doing this — it takes creativity to even imagine doing some of these studies, as well as the gumption to actually do them — but I think the intellectual drive to pursue these ambitious projects should rightly be considered a kind of hard work.

    A question for those of you who read recommendation letters (I’m just a grad student): would descriptions like “intellectually ambitious,” “driven not to seek easy answers,” “obssessive about challenging and expanding her own understanding,” or whatever, damn with faint praise the way “hardworking” does? And if not, what is the intellectually contentless work that we’re imagining as constituting the “hard work” praised in recommendations of productive scholars?



    December 7, 2009 at 1:34 am

  16. I agree with Omar in the case of tenure letters, though disagree with anyone who says they are unimportant. They are crucial for promotion, and thus they are crafted with substantial attention to tone. Even if you think someone should be promoted precisely because they are a regular producer of solid work that is not flashy, you still need to spice up your promotion letter in ways that will impress higher level committees who have no idea what sociology is all about anyway. And, you do the Chair a great favor in giving quotable phrases that can be lifted for a summary letter.

    However, when I read letters regarding freshly minted PhDs, I do want to see evidence that the applicant is genuinely hard working. I look for specific examples that demonstrate commitment to scholarship rather than just the willingness to plug away at a question. I try to judge smarts and creativity by reading the work, since on this count all the letters say the same thing anyway.



    December 7, 2009 at 7:46 pm

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